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Indian-American couple convicted for forced labor, physical abuse of kin

New York, Jan 23 (IANS) An Indian-origin Sikh couple has been convicted in the US for forcing a relative to work at their store for long hours, subjecting him to physical abuse and threats for years and confiscating his immigration documents.

Harmanpreet Singh, 30, and Kulbir Kaur, 43, from Richmond, Virginia, enticed the victim — then a minor — to travel to the United States with false promises of helping him enrol in a school.

After he arrived in the US, they took the victim’s immigration documents and immediately put him to work, a Department of Justice release stated on Monday.

On three different occasions, they threatened the victim — Singh’s cousin — with a revolver for trying to take a day off and for trying to leave. Following a two-week-long trial, a federal jury in the Eastern District of Virginia on Friday convicted the couple of committing forced labou, harboring for financial gain, and document servitude in connection with their operation of a gas station and convenience store in North Chesterfield.

The evidence presented at trial demonstrated that, between March 2018 and May 2021, the couple forced the victim to provide labour and services at their store, including working as the cashier, preparing food, cleaning, and managing store records.

Singh and Kaur used various coercive means, including confiscating the victim’s immigration documents and subjecting him to physical abuse, threats of force, and other serious harm and, at times, degrading living conditions to compel him to work extensive hours for minimal pay.

“These defendants engaged in an egregious bait-and-switch, luring the victim with false promises of an education in the United States and instead subjecting him to gruelling hours, degrading living conditions, and a litany of mental and physical abuse,” said US Attorney Jessica D Aber for the Eastern District of Virginia.

The jury heard that the victim was left at the store to sleep in a back office for days at a time on multiple occasions.

The couple limited his access to food, refused to provide medical care or education, and used surveillance equipment to monitor the victim — both at the store and in their home.

In addition, they refused his requests to return to India and made him overstay his visa. The evidence further showed that Singh pulled the victim’s hair, slapped and kicked him when he requested his immigration documents back, and tried to leave.

“The defendants exploited the victim’s trust and his desire to attend school in the United States, and then inflicted physical and mental abuse against him, all so they could keep him working for their profit,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

“Human trafficking is a disgraceful and unacceptable crime, and this verdict should send the very clear message that the Justice Department will investigate and vigorously prosecute these cases to hold human traffickers accountable and bring justice to their victims.”

Singh and Kaur face a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, up to five years of supervised release, a fine of up to $250,000, and mandatory restitution for the forced labour charge.

The couple’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for May 8, and a federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering US Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

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